As Hurricane Florence brushed across Bermuda over the weekend, Vineyarders kept a sharp eye on the weather reports, many thinking with relief that the Island had dodged another bullet.
With hurricane season in full swing and the anniversary of Katrina last week, hurricane preparedness is the topic of much discussion among federal, state and town officials. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. The peak season is mid-August through mid-October. A storm becomes a hurricane when winds exceed 74 miles per hour. However, it isn't wind but water which is the primary danger on an Island in a hurricane. Parts of the Island, like Aquinnah and Chappaquiddick, are at risk of being cut off due to flooding.
"Our number's up," Oak Bluffs emergency manager Peter Martell said in an interview late this summer, predicting that the Island is overdue for a hurricane.
Today hurricanes are tracked days in advance and officials can predict their size, wind speed, barometric pressure and possible landfall. On the Island, there is no evacuation plan, because during heavy storms, the ferries stop running. "Evacuation of the Island is not possible because there is no place to go," said Mr. Martell.
The Cape and Islands Red Cross chapter plays a critical role. Shelters on Martha's Vineyard can currently provide safe cover, hot meals and beds for about 3,000 people for three days, Red Cross leaders said. Each town has at least one shelter, prepared for two populations - visitors and residents.
The Red Cross anticipates that Islanders, unless they live in low-lying areas and have been instructed to evacuate, will remain in their homes during a hurricane. So shelters prepare first for a visiting population that will arrive before the hurricane, stay during it, but leave once it has passed. After the storm, they prepare for a post-storm influx of Islanders whose homes have no electricity or have been damaged.
Communication is another issue. "Cell phones are not dependable on the Island," said Deborah Medders, director of the Vineyard Red Cross chapter, "especially in a hurricane. So, there is no expectation of depending on them."
The state has set up a health alert network, a secured Web site for boards of health that allows for constant communication in times of emergency. The Vineyard Amateur Radio Association, a group of volunteer licensed HAM radio operators, has set up radio banks with the towns, the tribe and the Red Cross.
Access to the hospital is another potential problem. If a major storm occurs, Beach Road could become submerged. Carol Bardwell, the chief nurse executive and co-chairman of the emergency preparedness committee, said the town of Oak Bluffs has designated alternative routes to the hospital. The Oak Bluffs school is the hospital's alternative site in the event of evacuation. There are emergency generators and plans in place for portable food and water. "Hurricane preparedness is something we've always done," Ms. Bardwell said. "We're a coastal community."
The boards of health have had emergency preparedness plans for years, but three years ago, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health launched a plan to organize regionally. "We thought we had a good thing in place until we were exposed to the bigger picture," Edgartown health agent Matthew Poole said. Now the Cape and Islands have formed a 23-town coalition called the Cape and the Islands Public Health Coalition. The Barnstable County department of health and the environment is the host agency.
The mandate demanded that the boards assemble emergency preparedness plans and become certified in new methods. Mr. Poole said while it has been difficult, the benefit to the community will be huge. "The idea is to set up a flexible, adaptable team plan and make everyone familiar with each other," he said.
Katrina brought hurricane response and preparedness to the forefront of the discussion.
"Yes we are prepared," Mr. Poole said, "but, we are not as prepared as we could be." Not yet anyway. Each town has received a binder with call down lists that will help identify special populations, including the elderly, non-English speakers and people who need assisted living.
In addition, the boards are in the process of organizing a volunteer medical reserve corps to assist the community in special circumstances. The entity was registered in July.
The Red Cross chapters on the Cape and the Islands recently reorganized into one chapter covering Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The chapter has started a campaign to increase the shelter capacity to 6,000. They have already brought over more cots and supplies.
At monthly meetings, emergency managers discuss resource sharing, logistics, evacuation planning, staging areas and training sessions. In emergencies, they try to be in constant communication.
Despite the effort, communication does break down and the Island has no real communication plan in the event of a severe storm. "The problem that Martha's Vineyard is going to face is, if a big hurricane hits: there are six towns. Who's in charge," Mr. Poole said. "We all have our own books, but what are our abilities to work long term across town lines? That's when it becomes hard," he added.
Mr. Poole hopes that in the future, each town will have an individual emergency plan, with Islandwide coordination. During annual town meetings last year, with the exception of Chilmark, voters in each town agreed to enter into mutual aid agreements in case of emergency. "This would erase town lines so that people could share the work load," Mr. Poole said.
Mr. Martell feels differently. "There would be nobody in charge," he said. "Each town controls its own destiny." Mr. Martell said in the event of a hurricane, the Island simply has to hunker down. "Mop up, clean up and get back to business," he said.
In the end the best way to prepare for a hurricane is still to be well-informed and self-reliant. "The important lesson from Katrina is that you're on your own," Mr. Poole said. "The federal government won't swoop in. The responsibility of the local community is to educate people on what to expect, what they need and that they will be serving themselves for awhile. If there is one central message, it is that you have to participate in your own solution."
Spencer Booker, the emergency manager for Aquinnah and vice president of the Martha's Vineyard emergency management directors association, is optimistic about Islanders' capabilities to rely on themselves.
"Islanders are better prepared than most because of our isolation," he said. "If there was a bad hurricane, no boats would run, there would be minimal air travel, we'd be on our own and Islanders have felt that way for generations as opposed to people in urban centers who are used to having everything at their fingertips. It makes us better prepared."